Myths and Legends

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About Myths and Legends

What are myths, legends and folktales?

Human beings have been telling stories since they first learned to speak. And even before we could speak, we managed to tell stories by drawing and painting pictures on the walls of the caves we lived in.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, before even your teachers were born, there lived some really great storytellers. Their stories have been passed down, retold, translated, adapted and, more recently, written down, because everyone loves a good story! Do some of your favourites include haunting and murder, treasure and battle, wicked deeds and heroic actions? These stories probably include legends, myths and folktales.

What are legends?

A legend is usually based on a true event in the past. However, the story may have changed over time to take on some special 'mythical' features.
Legends usually have a real hero at the centre of the story and they are often set in fantastic places. The story will have been passed on from person to person, sometimes over a very long period of time. The fact that so many people have taken the trouble to keep the story alive, usually tells you that it has some very important meaning for the culture or region in which the story was first told.

What are myths?

A myth is not quite the same as a legend. Sometimes a myth is loosely based on a real event but, more often than not, it is a story that has been created to teach people about something very important and meaningful.

Myths are often used to explain the world and major events, which, at the time, people were not able to understand - earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, the rising and setting of the sun, illness and death. Many of the myths relating to such events have survived for a very long time, sometimes for thousands of years, as it is only in recent times that we have begun to understand why some of these things happen.

What are folktales?

Folktales are usually stories that have been passed down from generation to generation in spoken form. Often we do not know who was the original author and it is possible that some stories might have been concocted around a campfire by a whole group of people. It is quite normal to discover that there are many versions of the tale, some very similar but others may have only one or two characters in common and take place in totally different settings.

Many of the stories we call 'fairy tales' are really folktales - Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs. These stories were probably inspired by events which happened so long ago that we no longer have a record of what those events were.

What is the difference between legends, myths and folktales?

It is very hard to list the differences between myths, legends and folktales. In fact, it is often easier to say what they have in common than to say what makes them different from one another.

The main difference is probably to do with how much the story is based on a true event (illustrated below).


What we call legends are generally stories, which have an actual historical event or person as their starting point. Myths are sometimes based on legends but are altered in a way that makes them useful to teach people how to behave or to give an explanation of the world around.

Folktales may also have started their life by being based on an event, but they are changed almost every time they are told and, as time passes, the story loses its connection to reality and the message or moral of the story becomes much more important.

It's not really so important to spot the difference between the three types. Just enjoy the stories for themselves and see if you can tell what the purpose of the story was originally. Why might the story have been told in the first place? Are you able to tell how it has changed over time?


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